BITS OF ENGLISH
Thomas Russell Wingate
September, October, December 2009
March, May, November 2010
We all wish to tell correct English from incorrect English. It is advisable to know a sprinkling of English that is more correct.
If English is your native language, you must study it as though it were not. What Mark Twain called “English as she is spoken” simply won’t do. Histories of our language should be absorbed.
Shaw (whose innovative spelling and punctuation are not to be followed) made a wise resolution: “to write nothing that would be incomprehensible to a foreigner.”
Grasp this: fifty years from now your readers will be “foreigners.” If you write in here-today, gone-tomorrow mannerisms, they will find it difficult to read your works, and they won’t bother.
Lincoln cracking jokes and Lincoln giving speeches did not use language the same way. (This was often remarked upon; many considered Lincoln a buffoon, a hick from the sticks, not from the best background.) He adapted to many audiences. Lincoln’s orations and presidential papers—see most especially his letter to Mrs. Bixby—are well worth studying. We are able to study them because the autodidact, who made sure he knew the Bible, Blackstone, Shakespeare, and Plutarch, used correct English, which tends to be enduring.
An editor at the Government Printing Office came to the President. He had used the word “sugar-coated.” That was a bit vulgar; would Mr. Lincoln care to change the word before his remarks were printed? The editor was told: “The time will not come when the world does not know what ‘sugar-coated’ means.” It was printed as ordered.
Lincoln was right: we still know what it means to say that something is “sugar-coated.”
Writers, pick your expressions carefully. Resist the fashions around you if you hope to be read by the influential or by posterity.¹
You need not be archaic but you should be precise.
Others can follow your thinking if it is aiming at something. If it is a mess of verbal pottage, they may follow you but it won’t be because of your thinking (or theirs).
(If “birthright” did not come into your mind right away, you have been letting us all down.)
The most important book in the English language is not a dictionary. It is the Bible—the 1611 translation commissioned by King James.
Any passage from it is instantly recognizable. Of what other book can you say this?
Writers, permit yourselves to be swayed by its beauty. Go ahead, read the Good Book aloud. You will turn corners as you turn pages. Its cadences are delicious in the mouth and fruitful are its expressions. Match them if you can.²
Newer versions of the Bible have alleged and corrected errors of detail, but they have not reached superlative English expression.
Common nouns (e.g, dog) are capitalized only when they begin a sentence. Proper nouns (e.g., Rover) are always capitalized. What matters is how the noun is being used. Words implied but not written must be taken into account.
Joining the army will get you away from troubles at home.
Alvin York was drafted into the Army.
The second sentence is specific: it alludes to the Army of the United States.
His contempt of court got him a longer sentence.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Cherokee.
An academic fashion which cannot die too soon dispenses with capital letters whenever possible. Cringe at these barbarisms.
Theodore Roosevelt moved from the Republican party to the Progressive party.
J. Edgar Hoover reported to the president.
He is running for congress.
(In thick dictionaries, “congress” and “conversation” mean “sexual intercourse.” Such is the difference between C and c.)
In all contexts, Communism (doctrinal or organized Marxism-Leninism) is capitalized because it is a particular (proper noun) variant of ideas and movements (common nouns) called socialist, democratic, or progressive.
In 1924 Mongolia became the world’s second Communist country.
Unlike other British socialists, Bertrand Russell returned from Russia deeply anti-Communist.
The academic world does much to belittle the military world. Decapital punishment is habitual and unmentioned.
He was a navy SEAL.
Ask yourself how well your prose would be received if you did the same in reverse.
His son went to harvard and his daughter went to yale.
The university of Chicago has a fine library.
Manuals of style which blur distinctions and the thinking behind them should be remaindered, not consulted. Distinctions are what a writer lives to make—and earn.
Wittgenstein was thinking of using as a motto for his book the Earl of Kent's phrase from King Lear (Act I, scene iv): "I'll teach you differences."
In English, most nouns are neuter. Three important exceptions: the Roman Catholic Church, ships (even those named for males), and countries (when considered as powers interacting with other powers, or as the embodiment of territory-and-tradition) are feminine. This is grammar³—not custom, not idiom, not poetry.
The catechism explains her teachings.
Is she too wide to transit the Panama Canal?
She does not answer her helm.
Portugal kept herself out of World War II.
Switzerland is famed for her watches, her banks, her chocolates, her mountains, and her armed patriots.
The Mayflower reached Plymouth Rock.
In British English, the article may be omitted.
An iceberg struck Titanic, breaching her hull and causing her to sink.
The Prince of Wales broke his leg playing polo.
H.M.S. Prince of Wales sank after Japanese aviators bombed her.
Governments—it is vital to remember this—are not countries. They do not treat persons the way they treat each other. What they do, not what they say or what they explain away, is what should count when you write of them. Think with more precision than they would like you to and encourage this trait in others.
Many ships fly Liberia’s flag, although her navy is a small one.
Argentina will default on its debts again.
We read in Saudi Aramco World:
In 1979 Iran—on the eve of its revolution—led the Middle East in the number of students abroad, with some 50,000 studying in the U.S., according to a 2004 report by World Education Services.
Here, Iran is short for “the people of Iran” and “the [Shah’s] government of Iran.” These nouns are neuter, so the sentence is both correct and clear. But remember that Iran herself is greater than any of her governments and more than the living generation of her people.
In English, nouns beginning with a consonant take the indefinite article a; nouns beginning with a vowel take an. The n is added to make speaking easier.
Some words beginning with h take an even when the h is pronounced.
Examples: an heritage, an hundredfold, an historic event, an historian—but: a hope, a harvest, a holiday, a history.
Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.
“Goeth” is (now) an archaism; “an haughty” is not. We would not say “each Tuesday he goeth bowling,” but we would say “Idi Amin had an haughty spirit.”
The English language has a built-in bias toward the masculine. At times the masculine is understood to include the feminine. When it is not known, or when it makes no difference, whether the person(s) discussed be male or female, the masculine is used.
This does not sit well with feminists. They do not buy the explanation that it is economical. Saying “would everyone now please take his or her seat?” is clear, correct, and factual, but it is longwinded.
So their is being given an extra meaning: his or her. That would be fine were it not for the principle of agreement: a noun must agree in number with its verb.
“Let all now take their seats” is perfect. It is also short. Everyone is singular—look at it—and it is wrong to give it a plural verb.
Everyone is; all are. Anyone is; no one is; none are.
(“All is well” refers to a situation; in hospitals, no one says “all is ill.”)
Find ways around their = his or her. (No one attempts her or his.)
We could use one’s if we wanted to. “Would everyone now please take one’s seat?” “Where does one do one’s shopping?”
But that might be too simple for us—or too French.
Sex and gender are as different as chalk and cheese.
The former is biological. Women are a sex. Men are a sex. Neither is a gender.
Gender is a grammatical convention. You are not a convention.
In German girl is neuter. This is neither accurate nor tactful, but is anyone in Germany confused about the sex of their Mädchen?
Let us just quietly admit that all languages are replete with stupidities and that we need no more of them.
British English construes nouns which can be collective as collective. Americans are allergic to that. Americans would say “the mob was angry” or “the crowd was calm.” The British would say “the mob were angry” or “the crowd were calm.”
In American English, the government (federal, state, or local) is permanent and the administration (e.g., the Coolidge administration, the LaGuardia administration) is transient. Both nouns are singular.
In British English, the Crown is permanent and the government (e.g., the Thatcher government) is transient. The first noun is singular and capitalized. The second is plural and often takes a royal possessive.
British English is careful with quotation marks, both inner (“ ”) and outer (‘ ’); it follows the sense of what is meant. American English here is consistent but sloppy. American English, however, is more exact about abbreviation points. If you have never noticed these differences, be assured that they matter.
British: We all know ‘finders keepers, losers weepers’.
American: We all know “finders keepers, losers weepers.”
British: John asked, ‘Why is he crying about “finders keepers, losers weepers”? ’
American: John asked, “Why is he crying about ‘finders keepers, losers weepers’? ”
Things get even more confusing when there is a question inside a question, or a question inside a question inside a question. This is where Elements of Style should leap off your bookshelf.
The age of computers and their bland typefaces is making it customary and advisable to separate single and double quotation marks by a blank space.
The main point of “the King’s English” is that no king is ever elected. Society is stratified and language reflects this. Principles can be taught and self-taught. In their stability is your social safety. New words and phrases are always in the air, but where do most of them go?
Reference books can be prescriptive or descriptive. The former—which tell you when you are wrong—please lovers of exactitude. The latter accept whatever muddle was widespread at the time of competitive publication.
These differing emphases will not go away. They will not be “solved” or “dissolved” by market share, noisy professors, or fussy websites.
● ● ●
Anne Wingate, Ph.D.
From the late 1300s to the early 1600s English contained a word now lost.
It rhymed with hear and here.
Hir is my friend.
I gave the goatskin to hir.
Hir wore hir nightshirt.
The word—always singular—was both masculine and feminine.
Hir = he or she = him or her = his or her.
Chaucer used hir often. His blessing was not enough to keep it from sliding down the social scale.
The word was recorded in witchcraft trials in the time of James VI & I.
The Bible, Milton, and (methinks) Shakespeare left hir out.
The time is ripe to bring back this versatile word.
1 “Poetry, Góngorism, and a Thousand Years” by Robinson Jeffers
(1948) is at several Internet sites.
2 To pursue this, start with Pen of Iron: American Prose and the
King James Bible by Robert Alter (2010) and God’s Secretaries:
The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson (2003).
3 Modern English has natural gender (masculine, feminine,
neuter, common) and gender of animation, pervasive in Old
English, which survives from Latin and French.
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